China’s Ministry of Public Security confirmed in a statement that more than 100 arrests had been made and 13 production site closures enforced in a crackdown deployed to “destroy the criminal networks of waste oil.”
Action was taken across the six provinces and cities of Shanghai, Chongqing, Shandong, Zhejiang, Anhui and Jiangsu, the statement read.
The “clean sweep” crackdown on March 21 achieved “remarkable results”, according to the head of China’s Ministry of Public Security.
The ministry has since deployed an in-depth investigation that will involve all relevant local departments.
The tainted, black market cooking oil was being produced using rotten animal carcasses, skins and internal organs, as well as waste fat and oil, the ministry said.
Led by a criminal gang, the network producing the tainted cooking oil in illegal workshops, pegged as ‘black dens’. This oil was then sold onto oil processing companies across the country and distributed widely, tainting much of China’s edible oil sector.
The head of the ministry damned the criminal activity as “utterly devoid of conscience”.
The gang generated around RMB10m (US$1.5m) alone between January and November, 2011.
Crime fuelled by desperate, poor vendors
Shaun Rein, founder of China Market Research (CMR) told FoodNavigator-Asia that it is a “problem that infects the entire food supply system,” and a “serious problem that the government needs to do more to stop.”
Rein said that the criminal activity is being fuelled by desperate street vendors buying illegal oil in a bit to slash costs, irrespective of the potential harm it may cause to consumer health.
“When you are making less than a hundred dollars a month, have no medical insurance, you will do whatever you can to save a few dollars,” he said.
“Right now, costs are too high to rent real restaurant space,” and so there is a proportion of the food sector searching for cheaper alternatives.
Rein suggested a remedy in the form of a legal shift that would create a licensing system to allow street vendors, especially those at the poorer end of the spectrum, to open up food stalls.
Contaminated cooking oil, also known as ‘gutter oil’ has been an on-going food safety issue across China, but until now has only been produced using waste oils and fats.